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This review is from: Los Olvidados [DVD] (DVD)
Los Olvidados ('The Young and the Damned', actually more correctly translated as 'The Forgotten Ones') is the 1950 social realist film that put Luis Bunuel back on the map as a film-maker. Having scandalized middle class sensitivities with the surrealist classics Un chien Andalou (1928) and L'Age d'or (1930) in Paris with Salvator Dali, he made a strange 'documentary' about a dismal Spanish village called Las Hurdes (1932) before vanishing for 15 years. His autobiography 'My Last Breath' (which I highly recommend) has him picking up odd jobs around Hollywood studios and even in MOMA in New York, but we can't really be sure what he did. He eventually fetched up in Mexico in 1946 where he went on to make two inconsequential dramas, Gran Casino (1948) and The Great Madcap (1949) which producer Oscar Dancigers saw. Bunuel already had another script ready, but Dancigers had no doubt seen some of the Italian Neo-realist films of the period like Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) and maybe even Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1942) and La Terra Trema (1948). He wanted Bunuel to make a film in the same social realist tradition about the slums of Mexico City. It's very interesting then that without Dancigers Bunuel probably would not have made his crunching study of the poor which took the 1951 Cannes audiences so by surprise and which got Bunuel the Best Director award. I say 'crunching' because the film is a tale of truly horrific dimensions. As Derek Malcolm says in the accompanying introduction with this DVD, watching it is akin to being punched in the guts for 80 minutes without let up, so despicable is the human behaviour Bunuel (and screenwriter Luis Alcoriza) put in front of us.
The film is about a group of destitute kids and their daily lives in a slum. Their leader is Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), a truly nasty piece of work who rejoins his gang after leaving juvenile jail. Aided by Pedro (Alfonso Mejia) he tracks down Julian (Javier Amezcula) who he thinks fingered him. In a scene designed to show the sheer propensity for evil kids have, Jaibo hides a rock in a sling, pretending his arm is broken only to beat his prey to death with it. Pedro is relatively innocent up to this point, but now he is an accomplice to murder and has to shut up to protect Jaibo who goes on to use him throughout the film. Bunuel truly rubs our noses in the sheer horror of everyday slum life here. No character is good in this world of survival at any cost. The gang beat up a blind street musician (Miguel Inclan), but when the man's stick is studded with a rusty nail which he uses to assail his attackers, and when he proves in any case to be a paedophile, it's hard to feel sympathy. The group mug a legless cripple, kicking his support trolley down a hill. Another (this time well dressed) paedophile tries to pick up Pedro. Pedro's mother (Stella Inda) makes clear she hates her son by beating and screaming at him at every chance. She even allows herself to be seduced by Jaibo in a truly toe-curling sequence, and eventually gets rid of her son by sending him to a 'farm school'. Here we meet the film's only truly sympathetic character, the school head (Francisco Jambrina) who starts to show Pedro the way out. Here we have a twist of a Dickensian variety. The head trusts Pedro with money to go and buy tobacco for him. The boy is intent on making good, but Bill Sykes (I mean Jaibo) catches him outside and he is once more mired in slum conditions. Dickens magics up a happy ending for his tale, not so with Bunuel. The ending here is as heart rending as any I have ever seen in the cinema. The sheer pitiless inhumanity is deeply shocking, all the more so as one of the characters involved (the beautiful girl, Alma Delia Fuentes) has been Pedro's closest friend throughout the film.
Italian Neo-realism was based on a desire to throw off the cosy artificiality of Hollywood melodrama. Suddenly the stress was on location shooting, semi-documentary methods, improvised dialog, working class themes, real people working in real places and the idea of poor people being victims of the environment that conditions them. Los Olvidados goes along with most of this. It opens with a voice over declaring the general theme of every city having it's slum area. This is similar to the way La Terra Trema begins for example. Certainly Bunuel does show the truth of environmental conditioning, but there's more to it than that. For Bunuel, people are people beyond the remit of their environment. They all have their own desires, material, sexual or otherwise as shown in two surreal dream sequences (the first portraying Pedro's guilt at being involved in murder and the second having Jaibo being sucked into a hole as he dies) and in the behaviour especially of the mother. Nothing 'conditions' her to hate her son or want to have sex with Jaibo - it's her desire pure and simple. Also lacking in Los Olvidados is the use of children as a mirror to show up the horror that surrounds them - the boy at the end of Bicycle Thieves, the boys who watch the priest's death at the end of Rome Open City. Here the kids are evil incarnate. And they grow up (if they survive that is) to be even worse, if that is possible. There is a harsh pitilessness here which though tempered by short scenes of affection (the girl running milk over her legs and responding to Pedro's gifts, the mother eventually showing concern) is deeply shocking nevertheless. Bunuel's Neo-realism is one of assault and disturbance and it gets to the route of reality much more directly and honestly than even the best of the Italian Neo-realist films.
I notice some reviews here see Los Olvidados as being Bunuel's best. Well, it's certainly one of them, but he did go on to make equally devastating attacks on the world as he saw it in El (1952), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), Nazarin (1958) and especially (the two films I think are really his greatest works) Viridiana (1961) and The Exterminating Angel (1962). Derek Malcolm relates that Bunuel's biggest regret was that he never made a film in Hollywood. I for one am glad he never did. Softening his critical edge for the sake of 'entertainment', such a prospect would have robbed us of some the greatest films cinema has to offer us. This DVD is very good by the way. The picture is clean, if not completely without blur when the camera pans quickly especially across dark scenes. A 'happy' alternative ending was unearthed and digitalized in 2002, but sadly it hasn't been attached to this DVD as an extra. As it is we only have the said Derek Malcolm introduction which I feel could have been deeper - less clips from the film and more critical analysis would have helped. I bought this for less than a fiver which makes it a sure recommendation.